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United States v. Elonis

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

September 19, 2013

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
ANTHONY DOUGLAS ELONIS, Appellant

Argued: June 14, 2013

On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania D.C. Criminal No. 5-11-cr-00013-001 (Honorable Lawrence F. Stengel)

Ronald H. Levine, Esq. [ARGUED] Abraham J. Rein, Esq. Counsel for Appellant

Sherri A. Stephan, Esq. Office of United States Attorney, Robert A. Zauzmer, Esq. [ARGUED] Counsel for Appellee

Before: SCIRICA, HARDIMAN, and ALDISERT, Circuit Judges

OPINION

SCIRICA, Circuit Judge

This case presents the question whether the true threats exception to speech protection under the First Amendment requires a jury to find the defendant subjectively intended his statements to be understood as threats. Anthony Elonis challenges his jury conviction under 18 U.S.C. § 875(c), arguing he did not subjectively intend his Facebook posts to be threatening. In United States v. Kosma, 951 F.2d 549, 557 (3d Cir. 1991) we held a statement is a true threat when a reasonable speaker would foresee the statement would be interpreted as a threat. We consider whether the Supreme Court decision in Virginia v. Black, 538 U.S. 343, 359 (2003), overturns this standard by requiring a subjective intent to threaten.

I.

In May 2010, Elonis's wife of seven years moved out of their home with their two young children. Following this separation, Elonis began experiencing trouble at work. Elonis worked at Dorney Park & Wildwater Kingdom amusement park as an operations supervisor and a communications technician. After his wife left, supervisors observed Elonis with his head down on his desk crying, and he was sent home on several occasions because he was too upset to work.

One of the employees Elonis supervised, Amber Morrissey, made five sexual harassment reports against him. According to Morrissey, Elonis came into the office where she was working alone late at night, and began to undress in front of her. She left the building after he removed his shirt. Morrissey also reported another incident where Elonis made a minor female employee uncomfortable when he placed himself close to her and told her to stick out her tongue. On October 17, 2010 Elonis posted on his Facebook page a photograph taken for the Dorney Park Halloween Haunt. The photograph showed Elonis in costume holding a knife to Morrissey's neck. Elonis added the caption "I wish" under the photograph. Elonis's supervisor saw the Facebook posting and fired Elonis that same day.

Two days after he was fired, Elonis began posting violent statements on his Facebook page. One post regarding Dorney Park stated:

Moles. Didn't I tell ya'll I had several? Ya'll saying I had access to keys for the fucking gates, that I have sinister plans for all my friends and must have taken home a couple. Ya'll think it's too dark and foggy to secure your facility from a man as mad as me. You see, even without a paycheck I'm still the main attraction. Whoever thought the Halloween haunt could be so fucking scary?

Elonis also began posting statements about his estranged wife, Tara Elonis, including the following: "If I only knew then what I know now, I would have smothered your ass with a pillow, dumped your body in the back seat, dropped you off in Toad Creek, and made it look like a rape and murder." Several of the posts about Tara Elonis were in response to her sister's status updates on Facebook. For example, Tara Elonis's sister posted her status update as: "Halloween costume shopping with my niece and nephew should be interesting." Elonis commented on this status update, writing, "Tell [their son] he should dress up as matricide for Halloween. I don't know what his costume would entail though. Maybe [Tara Elonis's] head on a stick?" Elonis also posted in October 2010:

There's one way to love you but a thousand ways to kill you. I'm not going to rest until your body is a mess, soaked in blood and dying from all the little cuts. Hurry up and die, bitch, so I can bust this nut all over your corpse from atop your shallow grave. I used to be a nice guy but then you became a slut. Guess it's not your fault you liked your daddy raped you. So hurry up and die, bitch, so I can forgive you.

Based on these statements a state court issued Tara Elonis a Protection From Abuse order against Elonis on November 4, 2010. Following the issuance of the state court Protection From Abuse order, Elonis posted several statements on Facebook expressing intent to harm his wife. On November 7 he wrote:[1]

Did you know that it's illegal for me to say I want to kill my wife?
It's illegal.
It's indirect criminal contempt.
It's one of the only sentences that I'm not allowed to say.
Now it was okay for me to say it right then because I was just telling you that it's illegal for me to say I want to kill my wife.
I'm not actually saying it.
I'm just letting you know that it's illegal for me to say that.
It's kind of like a public service.
I'm letting you know so that you don't accidently go out and say something like that
Um, what's interesting is that it's very illegal to say I really, really think someone out there should kill my wife.
That's illegal.
Very, very illegal.
But not illegal to say with a mortar launcher.
Because that's its own sentence.
It's an incomplete sentence but it may have nothing to do with the sentence before that.
So that's perfectly fine.
Perfectly legal.
I also found out that it's incredibly illegal, extremely illegal, to go on Facebook and say something like the best place to fire a mortar launcher at her house would be from the cornfield behind it because of easy access to a getaway road and you'd have a clear line of sight through the sun room.
Insanely illegal.
Ridiculously, wrecklessly, insanely illegal.
Yet even more illegal to show an illustrated diagram.
===[ ] =====house
::::::: ^::::::::::::cornfield
::::::::::::::::::::
::::::::::::::::::::
::::::::::::::::::::
######################getaway road
Insanely illegal.
Ridiculously, horribly felonious.
Cause they will come to my house in the middle of the night and ...

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